When it comes to who is the more motivated team headed into Wednesday’s Independence Bowl, you have to believe that it’s the underdog.
Southern Miss (8-4) enters the game with a chance to earn a significant upset victory over Florida State (6-6) in Jay Hopson’s second season as head coach. These are the games that USM players look forward to when they first step on campus in Hattiesburg.
For Florida State, Wednesday’s game is nothing more than a chance for players to prove themselves to new head coach Willie Taggart. He won’t be the man coaching the Seminoles on Wednesday, but he’ll be watching closely.
“It is great to go out there and show him what we can do and we want to go out there and get that ‘W’ and springboard us into next year,” FSU running back Jacques Patrick said.
FSU clinched a 36th consecutive bowl bid by winning its final three games of the season, but head coach Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M the same week of the regular season finale against Louisiana-Monroe.
Odell Haggins, who typically instructs the FSU defensive line, will coach his second game as the interim head coach on Wednesday while Taggart looks on.
Seminoles sitting out
Florida State will also be without its top three players on defense in junior safety Derwin James, junior defensive end Josh Sweat and senior receiver Ermon Lane. All three decided not to take a chance of getting injured in the bowl with eyes on the NFL Draft.
FSU always features plenty of depth and won’t have much problem replacing those three players, but it won’t be quite the same defense.
“Again, the guys that they have playing are going to be ready to play,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “That’s the thing. Florida State is a team that has depth. Sometimes that guy that gets his opportunity, he’s ready to prove to the world, ‘Hey, I’m a first or second round draft pick. Look at me.’”
Whether that apathy has spread to the rest of the FSU team remains to be seen.
The area where FSU has the edge is up front on offense and in its talented running back duo.
Florida State features a huge offensive line that has six players who stand 6-foot-7 or taller. FSU’s two left tackles are starter Josh Bell, a redshirt freshman who stands 6-foot-8, 325 pounds, and redshirt junior backup Brock Ruble (6-8, 324).
At running back, FSU features a powerful runner in Jacques Patrick, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds. The most talented of the backs is a freshman from Mississippi – 5-11, 213-pound Cam Akers of Clinton.
USM will have to make sure Akers doesn’t get the 70 yards he needs to hit the 1,000-yard mark in his first season.
USM’s best path to victory is to have redshirt junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs play the best game of his life while forcing FSU freshman quarterback James Blackman into multiple mistakes. The USM defense needs to create at least three turnovers to earn its second consecutive bowl victory.
The Golden Eagles may want it more, but FSU’s overall talent will be difficult to overcome.
My prediction: Florida State 31, Southern Miss 24.